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What’s inside an immigrant processing center?

BACKGROUNDER | One Texas facility has taken in 1,500 to 2,000 new immigrants each day in recent months


Allison Dinner/AFP/Getty

What’s inside an immigrant processing center?
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A surge of some 7,000 migrants crossed from Mexico into El Paso, Texas, the weekend of Dec. 11, highlighting the ongoing border crisis. Over the last fiscal year, more than 2 million undocumented immigrants crossed the southern border—and more than 850 died trying. Another Texas town farther south, Eagle Pass, has also become an entry point. Outside the city, Border Patrol has erected a soft-side processing facility, an orderly maze of large white tents nicknamed the Firefly Softstation, to handle the growing influx. Here’s what WORLD’s Bonnie Pritchett and I saw during a recent visit.

What happens after Border Patrol agents spot and detain newly arrived immigrants? Agents transport immigrants deemed “nonthreatening” to the processing facility in unmarked white buses. Once there, medical workers check the immigrants for injuries or illness in a gated courtyard. Immigrants with flu-like symptoms are quarantined in a separate tent. In the main tent, Border Patrol segregates the immigrants into three groups—men, women, and families—and they sit while awaiting their turn for intake interviews. A large, air-conditioned recreational area meant for families with children doubles as an overflow waiting area, complete with bleachers and portable toilets.

Do the newcomers keep personal belongings? Agents store immigrants’ belongings in white drawstring bags and return them when they are released. Immigrants are also offered new clothing if needed. They will leave the center without drawstrings or shoelaces, though—agents confiscate them to prevent self-harm. The immigrants receive socks, soap, wooden toothbrushes, and a 15-minute shower.

Where do they wait? Men, women, and families wait in pods that are divided into smaller “blocks” separated by plexiglass. In one men’s block, about 18 men , some wrapped in shiny Mylar blankets, sat on thin mats eating burritos. There are three portable bathrooms in each block, and blankets, water, and snacks sit on tables in the center of the room. Staffers serve three meals a day.

How long do they stay? The Firefly Softstation is a holding facility, not a detention center. U.S. immigration officials cannot hold immigrants for more than 72 hours. At Firefly, Border Patrol turns immigrants over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and many are given a court date and released the same day they arrive. In September, Firefly took in 1,500-2,000 new people each day. Most of the immigrants are released from the station on parole with a tracking device.

Where do they typically go next? Officials transport them to local nonprofits. Mission: Border Hope in Eagle Pass provides beds and meals and helps immigrants find transportation out of the city. Immigrants typically pay for their own transportation to other cities.

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